On Vulnerability (A Special Edition)

I find myself thinking about despair today. I tend to hold an existentialist worldview, maintaining that the universe is inherently void of meaning, which lends itself to viewing the world as a blank slate. If there is no meaning, then one must create his own meaning. The problem with the existentialist view, though, is that, even if rare, despair eventually rears its head, climbing into bed with you to ensure that its face is the first you see when you open your eyes one unsuspecting morning. Typically, I take one of two approaches to these days: I either reason my way out of them, or succumb to them completely- sometimes the most effective method of dealing with unwanted emotions is to allow them to defeat you, even if only for a time.

It will be difficult, to say the least, to succumb to despair using the medium of the blinking cursor now before me. That being the case, let me use this cursor in pursuit of the first method: reason.

The post I’ve most wanted to write of late concerns the role of vulnerability in our lives- its purpose and its advantages. Two things have stimulated this thought process in me: a fantastically brilliant TED talk by Brené Brown, and a film I recently watched. In her talk, Brown argues (and I’m paraphrasing) that only true vulnerability leads to true human connection, and that human connection is the heart and soul, so to speak, of existence. That being the case, the conclusion seems to be that vulnerability, in its rawest form, is vital to the human condition.

The film contained an epiphany of the same sort, albeit much simpler. In it, two people made a powerful connection with each other, and I began to wonder, and then to investigate, exactly what led to this connection. The answer came in a rush: it was the vulnerability of one character, who exposed herself to a very raw, even humiliating level. There were no garments left to hide her soul- it revealed itself to be quite flawed, desperate and frightened, of the one thing that has the uncanny ability to petrify the strongest of us: ourselves. Her emotion was naked, and the effect on the witness of this undressing was powerful. The effect on her was even more so: though her eyes radiated with fear, her body moved as if it was tasting true freedom for the first time, bursting from the shackles of facade.

The effect was, curiously, just as powerful on her witness, and it seems to me to be so for precisely the opposite reasons. Whereas the Vulnerable is freed by humility, the Witness is empowered. Being deemed worthy of such nakedness, the Witness cannot help but feel like the Chosen One, and indeed he is. He’s been chosen to witness the undressing of a soul to its most basic element: helplessness. And if helplessness (vulnerability) is the most basic element of our existence, it is then by definition the core component of us all, and the Witness cannot help but see it in his own soul. Therein lies the connection- the silken thread connecting us all. When a moment of vulnerability radiates from a person’s very self, it also shines a light on the thread connecting all of us, so that Witness and Vulnerable feel as if the Universe is revealing a true secret to them, hitherto unseen by the rest of us.

These thoughts came streaming to me in a flood as I realized that, in writing a story, in order to create a true connection between two people, one character must be exposed, completely and utterly. This fact now seems as obvious to me as the grass beneath my feet.

How, then, can I use this knowledge to fend off despair? The answer, now, seems obvious: I must make myself vulnerable. If connection is truly the heart of existence, despair must be the lack of connection, and thus a lack of vulnerability.

Exposure is not an easy thing for me to do. I’m typically a fairly secretive person. In fact, I can honestly say that there’s not a single person on the face of the planet who truly knows me. Even those who think they do only see variations of a different mask. True, a select few see a much thinner veil than most, but no one has seen the mask removed. Ever.

So, in this spirit, let’s peel back the mask a bit.

I cannot begin to describe how petrified I am of my future. When I was a kid, there were, at various stages, a few things I was quite good at: it began with baseball, which gave way to academics, then acting, all intertwined with a bit of poetry and some dabbling with essays. Throughout childhood, it was always assumed by those who knew me that I would excel at one of these things as an adult. To date, however, I’m not a baseball player, or an actor, or a scholar. These things, as a matter of fact, I’ve failed at, quite miserably. What, then, is left? Writing. Only writing.

I realize now why I’ve waited until thirty-one years of age to get so serious about writing: it’s the only facade I have left. Everyone who knows me thinks of me as a fairly talented writer. If I pursue this, then, and I fail: what is left to define me? What- who- will I be?

I’ve also dabbled in design a bit lately. I’ve laid out my goal before: no longer will I be a salesman, peddling products I myself don’t believe in to unsuspecting victims by way of manipulation and cheap mind tricks. I’ll create things: with words and with code. The writer/ designer that, while already becoming a bit cliché, seems to give more meaning to my existence, and will allow me to follow my daughter wherever her stepfather takes her. Complete mobility is the goal, a circumstance in which, as long as I have my laptop, I can make a living. If I fail, then, it means that I may not be able to watch my daughter grow up. That thought is nothing short of unbearable.

So I must learn. I must write, and fail, and design, and fail, and try, and try, and try. The stakes are high. I believe, though, that in the end, the connections made along the way will prove to be the most valuable of gems. I will connect to my fellow human beings; I will connect to myself, and I will connect to my daughter, by providing an example that will, one day, when she reads my words, make her proud to be my daughter. There is, I think, no nobler pursuit than that, and no surer way to fend off the advances of despair than by seeing the light in my child’s eyes when she looks back into mine with pride. That is the real- the only real- connection.